Aid Workers: Syrian Refugees Unable To Help Their Kids Cope

For two and a half years, Syria has been at war with millions of civilians on the move. U.N. agencies tracking the exodus say about three quarters of the children forced to flee their homes are under the age of 11. A team of child psychologists in Amman, Jordan, make house calls to address the needs of families who do not live in refugee camps.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Of the millions of people who have fled the war in Syria, more than half are children. United Nations agencies tracking this exodus say most of the children are under the age of 11. NPR's Deborah Amos has been meeting some of them in Jordan.

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DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: We are driving in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Amman, the Jordanian capital. Psychologists Ahmad al Rababah and Nisreen Bital make house calls four days a week to treat traumatized Syrian children. The project is funded by the Syrian American Medical Society. This rundown neighborhood is home to refugee families packed into squalid apartments - often isolated - without much support. So the team brings a food basket on every visit.

DR. NISREEN BITAL: We visit a family and we give breakfast food like a gift.

AMOS: That's Dr. Bital. She says many parents have no idea how to help their children cope. They are suffering from profound stress themselves. And do you see right away that the children need your help?

BITAL: (Through Translator) Usually, the mother is the one who starts talking. The other category of children is that you immediately see when we come that they are aggressive and then you start asking the mother what's with your child.

AMOS: It's the first home-visit in this neighborhood, so the team waits for a signal that it's OK to come inside. There's a father standing on the other corner, he waving to the team of doctors, and he's holding the hand of his little girl. They are going to lead the way to his apartment. As we climb steep concrete steps, Dr. Rababah tries to coax the little girl to say her name.

DR. AHMAD AL RABABAH: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He gets nothing back. She clings to her father. For many of these children, the physical threats are behind them, but deep psychological scars remain. Once inside the cramped apartment, her father does much of the talking. We agree not to use his name.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Everything was stolen - our car, our home, he says - and I was wounded. He is now blind in one eye and shuffles with a profound limp. His young daughter takes it all in. The psychologists are patient. They listen and spend a few hours here. They have made home visits to a thousand refugee families over the past year, but, Dr. Rababah says there are thousands more desperate for help.

RABABAH: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Back at his office, he shows us drawing - by children in therapy.

RABABAH: (Through Translator) Children draw the reality they have been through. So, you can see children being killed, airplanes bombing houses, war scenes, killing and blood.

AMOS: There is another stark reality. When those planes bomb Syrian homes, there's chaos. With a neighborhoods in flames, families can be separated in an instant. There is a growing number of children who cross the border alone and arrive at Zaatari, Jordan's sprawling refugee camp.

PHOEBE MARABI: They don't know if they will ever see their families again, so most of them come here when they are really in a desperate situation.

AMOS: That's Phoebe Marabi, a child protection specialist with the International Rescue Committee. She heads a program to identify unaccompanied minors who arrive with the new wave of refugees each night. And some children are very young.

MARABI: We've had as young as four years.

AMOS: Four years come without their parents?

MARABI: Yes. A four year old kid without their parents, but in the company of the siblings, who also all under 18 years.

AMOS: They are now with a foster family inside the camp. That is also part of the IRC program - to identify refugee families willing to care for a traumatized child.

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AMOS: In one of the refugee trailers in Zaatari, Abdullah Rafaat says he fled southern Syria a year ago with his wife and 11 children. Rafaat says parents don't look after their children here like they did in Syria.

ABDULLAH RAFAAT: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: I am trying to have discipline, he says, but the other parents, they just let it go. A few months ago, he agreed to care for one more child, 17-year-old Abdul Rahman, who arrived in Zaatari alone. For now, he has become part of this family. I have enough for a soccer team, Rafaat jokes, but he is serious when he explains why he agreed to accept one more into this crowded household.

RAFAAT: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: He doesn't have anybody, not anybody, so we decided to take care for him. If he's was left by himself, life would have ruined him.

A shy boy, Abdul Rahman smiles. He says he's happy here in Zaatari. But he says he hopes he can find his parents one day.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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